Pot smoke and mirrors

Diverse city
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  June 20, 2013

As with so many things political and social that unfairly target certain groups, it's often about smoke and mirrors. In this case, pot smoke and a little mirror to snort coke off of.

Or, rather, the contrast between the two and what it says about an unfair and inequitable law enforcement and criminal justice system.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a "War on Marijuana" report showing that while black and white Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rate, blacks are four times more likely overall to be arrested for possession than their white counterparts. Closer to home here in Maine, the state average is that blacks are 2.1 times more likely to be arrested for possession; of course, in my county of York the rate is five times higher than it is for whites, so it's a good thing my pot-smoking days ended over 20 years ago.

I jest a bit, but pot arrests are a serious matter.

As in "seriously messed up" — and I mean that both in terms of racial disparities/discrimination and the fact there's a war on marijuana at all, no matter what races get arrested in it. I'm not saying marijuana is harmless (neither are the legal drugs nicotine and alcohol, nor your cold medicine, for that matter) but in the end, it is clearly the least injurious of all illegal drugs. Yet nationally in 2010, we spent $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws. In Maine, a whopping $8.8 million was spent enforcing these laws and that includes police, judicial, and legal services and well as corrections expenditures. Never mind the financial fallout that happens as a result of such arrests and convictions, including being disqualified from public housing, losing access to student loans, and being unable to obtain employment.

This means that higher rates of marijuana arrests and convictions for blacks is just one more nail in the coffin of economic equality. One more way to widen the economic divide between blacks and whites.

Of course for all the hand-wringing over this report and the impact for black Americans, none of this is exactly new information or something to be surprised about. One only needs to look back to the 1980s, when we saw laws created that gave more gravity to a crack cocaine conviction than that of a powdered cocaine conviction.

Mandatory sentencing laws locked up a lot of black people at the height of the crack epidemic, while many white cocaine users never got more than a slap on the wrist. While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was an attempt to address the inequalities that existed when it came to drug cases, it's clear that in the United States, we prefer an erroneous message that says users are just poor and/or brown.

For the past several years, we have seen an increase in drugs such as meth and abuse of prescription pills such as oxycontin, which are largely abused by white people. Despite this, we're still seeing people of color targeted as the "problem" in drug dealing and drug use. In Maine, we are seeing more drug users. White ones mostly. We are seeing fallout in lives from substances far more potent, addictive, and mind-bending than pot. We have seen an increase in robberies to support abuse of very hard drugs.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Diverse City
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